Obese employees costing companies

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Obese workers are proving to be costly to companies, both in terms of increased health care expenses and lost productivity, according to Dr. Philip E. Tippen, medical director at Saint Francis Medical Center's The Healthy Weigh program.

Tippen was one of several speakers featured Tuesday at Saint Francis' fourth annual Business Health Summit, which also included discussions on workers' compensation and OSHA regulations.

Tippen told about 100 business leaders in attendance that over the past 15 years, obesity has become an epidemic.

"We are a supersize society," he said.

A total of 33.8 percent of Americans are considered obese and another 34.2 percent are overweight, according to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. That leaves only 32 percent of Americans in the healthy weight range, Tippen said.

For a company with 100 employees, that's an increased cost of $28,500 annually.

"Since I graduated from medical school in 1995, we're seeing three times more obese people, 4.5 times more Americans are more than 100 pounds overweight and the number of people who have three or more chronic illnesses has increased by 85 percent," he said. "This really adds to the costs of what we do in medicine these days."

Medical costs for workers who are obese are 42 percent higher than non-obese employees, Tippen said.

He also quotes the CDC's research showing a 10 percent weight loss means a reduction of $2,200 to $5,300 in lifetime medical costs.

Obesity also costs companies in the areas of work performance and productivity.

Obese workers are 1.7 times more likely to experience a high level of absenteeism, defined as six or more absences over a six-month period.

Obesity also puts workers at increased risk for other injuries including vibration-related injuries, osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

"We know that sleep disordered breathing is very common in obesity. These people are sleepy, they're more prone to accidents. For example, a truck driver may have trouble staying awake," Tippen said.

There are steps employers can take to help their employees make healthier lifestyle choices and in turn reduce health care costs and time away from work due to obesity-related illnesses, he said.

The Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that workplace wellness programs return savings of $3 to $6 for every $1 a company invests in operating them.

Companies with wellness programs saw an 26 percent reduction in the use of health insurance benefits and a 28 percent reduction in the use of sick leave.

"The big disadvantage is cost," Tippen said. "To do these is sometimes an expensive proposition and that may be why not many employers do this."

Other, lower-cost options include encouraging employees to use the stairs, giving them pedometers and asking them to aim for 10,000 steps per day, and offering access to healthy foods.

"There are companies that are producing treadmills where you walk about a mile per hour and have your computer in front of you at work. Some companies now do meetings standing up, so you burn some calories that way," Tippen said.

When it comes to losing weight, Tippen said a combination of diet, exercise and lifestyle modifications works best.

"Structured programs tend to work better. You have to address the behavioral issues such as eating choices and exercise. You have to improve their skills to help manage their weight long-term," he said. This spring, Saint Francis launched The Healthy Weigh medical weight-loss program, which Tippen coordinates. It offers a combination of shakes, snack bars and healthy entrees along with exercise and education to help patients drop pounds.

Almost 60 people have participated in the program since it started in March and more people follow the program on their own or just buy the meal replacements. In an effort to become a role model for his patients, Tippen has been following the program himself. He's lost 35 pounds in the process.

Participants include those who are being medically supervised by a physician and people who chose to do the program independently.

The medically supervised patients have dropped a total of 1,000 pounds since the program began in March, Tippen said.

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

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